Desolate and beautiful are the best words to describe the 64 kilometres of the Sperrin mountains stretching along the Tyrone-Derry border. The range’s gently curving slopes give the Sperrins a deceptively low appearance but they actually reach a peak of 682 metres as the farms and woodlands of the lower sections melt into the bog and heather moorland of the top.
The only hustling and bustling on the mountain is done by the wildlife with kestrels, sparrowhawks, rabbits, badgers and hares all having made homes in the Sperrins. Rivers at the foot of the mountains offer excellent trout fishing.
The range peaks at Mt Sawel, just behind the Sperrin Heritage Centre. The centre has innovative computer displays and a holographic storyteller to explain environmental, historical and cultural issues in the area. Gold has been rediscovered in the mountains and the centre organises panning for gold in a nearby stream.
The Creagan Visitor Centre is another worthwhile stop. It promotes local cultural and festival events and has song and story-telling sessions at the weekends all year round. Both centres provide advice to perspective walkers and it is a good idea to check with them before starting out as some farmers do not like hikers crossing their land.
For those looking for a less adventurous trek, there are plenty of opportunities to ramble along the Ulster Way or trails designed by the Northern Tourist Board. A particularly pleasant walk runs between Gortin and Glengawna and passes the Ulster History Park.
Scattered along the walks are thousands of standing stones and chamber graves, the most famous being the Beaghmore Stone Circles on the south-eastern rim of the range. Beaghmore consists of seven stone circles aligned with the moon and stars and some burial cairns.
There are several walking festivals through the area in the summer months. These include: the Sperrin Walking Weekend in mid-June, the Cookstown Walking Festival in late June, the Carntogher Festival in mid-July, the Sperrin’s Hillwalking Festival in early August and the Feeny Folk Festival in early October.
There are some precautions to take when walking though. While the mountain’s heights are relatively easy to climb, they are still subject to the dramatic weather changes of other highland areas, so be prepared. Some of the signposts along the Ulster Way are pointing in the wrong direction or are no longer there, so buy a guide. There are very few places to eat along the way, so have enough provision.
An alternative to walking is provided by bicycle hire centres along the way, or the Edergole Riding Centre, who organise horse riding trips through the mountains.
The Ulster American Folk Park
The Ulster American Folk Park in Camphill is one of Ireland’s most remarkable and popular museums. It chronicles emigration trends from Ulster to America since the 18th century beginning somewhat unusually with the emigration of Ulster’s Protestant community who by 1770 were leaving for North America at a rate of 10,000 a day.
There is an indoor gallery detailing the reasons for emigration, but it is the outdoor park which really brings history to life. It features re-constructions and original buildings from 18th century Ireland – highlights include a squat Catholic chapel from 1768, an early 19th century single room cabin, the Mellon Homestead, a Presbyterian meeting house, a mock-up of part of a ship that would have taken emigrants across the Atlantic and an American street similar to those constructed by the Pennsylvanian settlers, who Benjamin Franklin said made up two thirds of the state’s population.
The museum is open Easter to September from Monday to Saturday between 11 a.m. and 6.30 p.m. and Sundays between 11.30 a.m. and 7 p.m. Costume guides and craftworkers answer visitors questions and explain crafts like spinning, candlemaking and weaving. Information on the museum is available from www.folkpark.com
The Ulster History Park
The Ulster History Park does a good job of tracing the history of settlements in the area. Full scale models show Mesolithic and Neolithic settlements, as well as a crannog, Norman motte and bailey and a 12th century round tower.
Gortin Glen Forest Park
The 400 hectares of Gortin Glen Forest Park offer a wonderful opportunity to walk or drive through this particularly scenic spot. There is an 8 kilometre tarmac road through the forest’s conifer trees. Wildlife in the park includes a pack of Japanese sika deer. There are some wildlife enclosures and some small nature trails through the park.
Wellbrook Beetling Mill
The process known as beetling was the final stage of linen production, when the linen was beaten with wooden hammers driven by water to smooth the material out and give it a sheen. This mill at Wellbrook near Cookstown operated for 200 years up until the early 1960s as a part of Ulster’s hugely important linen industry. The mill’s machines are still in working order and visitors are given a noisy demonstration of the process.